India is generally known as the land of Hinduism and Buddhism, and rightly so. But it is also home to a unique branch of Christianity, the Thomas Christians.
According to the “Acts of Thomas,” written in the third century, Jesus’ apostle Thomas — the Doubter (see John 20:24-29) — visited India around A.D. 52, probably to preach to the “Cochin Jews” — a Jewish merchant colony in Kerala that was participating in the lucrative Roman-Indian trade of the age. During his 20-year mission in India, Thomas is also said to have preached to Gondophares IV, a king of the Indo-Parthian dynasty in modern Pakistan and northwest India. More importantly, Thomas is said to have founded seven churches in Kerala — paralleling the seven churches of Asia Minor — before being martyred by the local king for his preaching.
Whatever the accuracy of these early legends, it is clear that Christianity could be found in Kerala by the second century A.D., when Christians in the west mention that the Christians of India read a now lost Hebrew (or Aramaic?) version of the Gospel of Matthew. Through the centuries, Indian Christianity has flourished in Kerala. Today, Christians in the state of Kerala number 6 million, comprising 18 percent of the province’s population.
In the Middle Ages, Christians — called Nasrani (Nazarenes) in India — centered mainly on the southeast Malabar coast. Though largely independent in most matters, they were part of the broader Syriac Nestorian Church of Iraq and Iran and used medieval Syriac in their liturgy. Although the details of their history are unknown, Indian Christians are briefly mentioned in a number of different medieval sources, including Marco Polo, who visited them on his return sea voyage from China to Italy. The oldest surviving Christian building in India is the St. Thomas Church at Palayoor (Kerala), which was built on the ruins of an earlier Hindu temple; the church was destroyed by fire and rebuilt on the old foundations in the 17th century.
The story of Indian Christianity was transformed by the arrival of Portuguese explorers in 1498. They established colonies in Indian ports such as Goa and made the integration of Indian Christians into Catholicism a central colonial policy. In this they were largely successful; today, 50-60 percent of Indian Christians are Roman Catholic. Most ancient church buildings in India were eventually occupied and rebuilt by the Portuguese during the 16th and 17th centuries. One of the most famous is the St. Thomas Cathedral in Chennai (Madras), said to be the tomb of the apostle. The church dates from at least the 10th century and was rebuilt by the Portuguese in 1602, then again by the British in 1893.
Along with Portuguese attempts to integrate Indian Christians into Catholicism, the Jesuits organized missionary efforts among both Muslims and Hindus. The most famous of these missionaries was St. Francis Xavier himself, co-founder of the Jesuits, whose tomb rests in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa. These Jesuits made serious attempts to convert Akbar (1556-1605), the Muslim Mogul emperor of India. They were given permission to preach Christianity at Akbar’s court in Fatepur Sikri.
But the Jesuits confused Akbar’s religious curiosity with the possibility of real conversion; Akbar remained an idiosyncratic Muslim who devised his own syncretistic, short-lived theology, called “Din-i-llahi” — “The religion of God” — with Akbar as its prophet.
The final phase of the history of Christianity in India begins with the rise of the British Raj (reign) in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although they made no attempt to establish Christianity as the official religion of India, British rule encouraged Protestant missionaries to establish schools, hospitals and churches throughout India. St. James’ Anglican Church in Delhi, built in 1836, symbolized the triumph of the British colonial Christian ideology of India’s new rulers. Today, over 7 million Protestants, spread among numerous denominations, account for around 25 percent of India’s Christians.
Nonetheless, in contemporary India, Christianity ranks a distant demographic third, after Hinduism (80 percent) and Islam (14 percent). Although amounting to only 2.3 percent of the population of India, this still represents almost 30 million Christians, three times more than are found in modern Portugal.8 comments on this story
In 1993, missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opened a new Indian mission. Now, more than 13,000 Indian Latter-day Saints will soon celebrate Christmas with the subcontinent’s other Christians. And in April 2018 the church announced plans to build a temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the ancient land of the Apostle Thomas.
Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.